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Explainer: What does it mean to prorogue Parliament?

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set up a collision with Parliament over the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, as he announced that he intends to prorogue Parliament next month. Here are the facts you need to know.

What does it mean to “prorogue” Parliament?

To prorogue Parliament resets the session, as Members of Parliament take an extended recess. All pending legislation is wiped clean, except for measures MPs voted to carry over. The traditional Queen’s Speech then rings in a new session of Parliament.

“This morning I spoke to Her Majesty The Queen to request an end to the current parliamentary session in the second sitting week in September, before commencing the second session of this Parliament with a Queen’s speech on Monday 14 October,” PM Johnson wrote. (See the full text of his letter below.)

When will this take place?

Parliament is presently on recess but will return next Tuesday September 3, and will sit through September 11 or 12, when Parliament characteristically breaks for party conferences. They would have returned after this year’s Conservative Party gathering wraps up on October 2. This move keeps MPs out of session until October 14. The decision to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, or 23 working days, would be the longest prorogation since 1945.

How is proroguing Parliament different than dissolving Parliament?

When Parliament is dissolved, all pending legislation is scrapped. However, government ministers relinquish their seats, and a general election follows.

Who actually gives the order to prorogue Parliament?

The Royal Sovereign (king or queen) must prorogue Parliament, as the prerogative falls under royal powers.

Can the King or Queen refuse to follow through?

Technically the Queen can refuse to issue an order to prorogue Parliament. However, her governing role is merely ceremonial under Britain’s unwritten constitution, and she acts on the advice of the government.

Queen Elizabeth II announced today that she has accepted Johnson’s decision and issued a decree stating: “It is this day ordered by Her Majesty that Parliament be prorogued on a day no earlier than Monday the 9thof September and no later than Thursday the 12thof September 2019 to Monday the 14thof October 2019.”

Has this been an unusually long Parliament?

Prorogation usually happens every year, but Theresa May did not prorogue Parliament last year in an attempt to force through her Brexit deal.That means this Parliament has been sitting since the June 2017 snap elections. This is only the third biennual Parliament since 1949. Its tenure, 340 days, ranks as the longest since the conclusion of the English Civil War in 1651. “In almost 400 years only the 2010-12 session comes close, at 250 days,” Johnson wrote in his letter to Parliament.

Why does it matter that Boris Johnson acted to prorogue Parliament at this time? 

Parliament rejected former PM Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement by historic margins. However, they also passed legislation against a no-deal Brexit (legislation which has subsequently expired). Boris Johnson has been an outspoken advocate of Brexit, even if it means the UK must leave the European Union without a deal. Since his election as prime minister, MPs have scurried to find a way to prevent a no-deal Brexit on October 31, thus far without success.

The decision to prorogue Parliament 64 days before the deadline cuts the amount of time MPs can find a legislative way to thwart Brexit from 27 days to 14. It leaves just seven sitting days between the party conferences and the October 31 deadline to leave the EU.

To further complicate the legislative arithmetic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel breathed life into the possibility that the EU will amend the Withdrawal Agreement during a meeting with Johnson surrounding the G7 Summit, saying the contentious issue of the Irish backstop could be resolved in 30 days. Johnson has hinted the European Council may accept an amended deal at its October 17 meeting.

Why did Boris Johnson decide to prorogue Parliament?

Formally, Johnson said he wishes “to bring forward a new bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda for the renewal of our country after Brexit.” Johnson wrote to MPs that the legislative burden of Brexit should “be no excuse for a lack of ambition!” He subsequently insisted it is “completely untrue” that he is curtailing Parliament’s role in shaping Brexit and that he made the decision solely because “[w]e are bringing forward a new legislative program on crime, hospitals, making sure we have the education funding we need.” Likewise, Jacob Rees-Mogg has deemed prorogation the “normal functioning of our constitution.”

The fact that the decision came just one day after former Chancellor Philip Hammond stepped forward to lead cross-party talks (after Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts faltered) has raised questions about Johnson’s true motivation.

How have Remainers responded to the decision to prorogue Parliament?

Both Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democratic leader Jo Swinson have written to the Queen. Corbyn, who requested an emergency meeting with Her Majesty, accused Johnson of doing “a sort of smash-and-grab on our democracy in order to force through a no-deal exit from the European Union.” He also alleged that Johnson colluded with U.S. President Donald Trump to “hand Britain’s public services and protections over to US corporations in a free trade deal.” For her part, Swinson called prorogation “dangerous” and “an act of cowardice.”

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell called Johnson’s actions a “very British coup.” House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has said, “This move represents a constitutional outrage.”

The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, said the move amounts to “dictatorship.” First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford said Johnson “wants the Queen to close the doors on our democracy.” Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price accused Johnson of trying to “disembowel Parliament.” Labour Party MP Clive Lewis said, “The police will have to remove us from the chamber.” And Conservative Party member Rory Stewart threatened during the leadership contest to hold rump Parliament meetings just down the street at the Methodist Central Hall.

How have Leavers reacted?

Dominic Raab raised the possibility of prorogation to deliver Brexit over the objections of parliamentary Remainers during the Conservative Party leadership campaign this summer. DUP Leader Arlene Foster said, “We welcome the decision to hold a Queen’s Speech marking the start of a new session of Parliament on 14 October.”

Brexit Party founder Nigel Farage has been somewhat coy, saying that prorogation “is seen as a positive move by Brexiteers.” However, he said his party would oppose any efforts to push through a warmed-over version of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. But if Johnson pushes for “a clean break Brexit then we would like to help him secure a large majority in a general election.”

Could this topple Boris Johnson’s government?

Some Remainers have threatened Johnson’s newly installed government with a confidence vote. Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve told BBC Radio 5 Live: “If the prime minister persists with this and doesn’t back off, then I think the chances are that his administration will collapse. … I will certainly vote to bring down a Conservative government that persists in a course of action which is so unconstitutional.”

Conservatives have stitched together a paper-thin working majority with the Democratic Unionist Party, which would be tested under normal circumstances. However, the vote would likely fail. Installing Jeremy Corbyn, a polarizing figure to the left of Bernie Sanders, as prime minister is every Conservative’s worst nightmare. And many Labour Party MPs and members of the Liberal Democratic Party would balk at the idea of aligning behind Corbyn.

Has President Trump reacted?

President Trump tweeted this morning that a no confidence vote would strengthen Johnson and added, “Boris is exactly what the UK has been looking for.”

Have Church of England leaders weighed in?

Yes. Nick Baines, the bishop of Leeds, argued, “If Brexit was about taking back control and restoring parliamentary sovereignty, this is a very odd way of demonstrating it.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, agreed yesterday to spearhead a “citizens assembly” aimed at stopping a no-deal Brexit. Its first meeting will take place next month inside Coventry Cathedral.

Will prorogation give rise to a legal challenge? 

Gina Miller and former Conservative Prime Minister John Major have threatened or already initiated court actions.Since this is a royal prerogative, the decision to prorogue Parliament cannot be legally challenged in court. However, Major sees other grounds for his efforts. “The Queen’s decision cannot be challenged in law,” Major said, “but the prime minister’s advice to the Queen can, I believe, be challenged in law – and I for one would be prepared to seek judicial review.”

Full text of Prime Minister Johnson’s letter:

Dear Colleague,

I hope that you had an enjoyable and productive summer recess, with the opportunity for some rest ahead of the return of the House.

I wanted to take this opportunity to update you on the Government’s plans for its business in Parliament.

As you know, for some time parliamentary business has been sparse. The current session has lasted more than 340 days and needs to be brought to a close — in almost 400 years only the 2010-12 session comes close, at 250 days. Bills have been introduced, which, while worthy in their own right, have at times seemed more about filling time in both the Commons and the Lords, while key Brexit legislation has been held back to ensure it could still be considered for carry-over into a second session. This cannot continue.

I therefore intend to bring forward a new bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda for the renewal of our country after Brexit. There will be a significant Brexit legislative programme to get through but that should be no excuse for a lack of ambition!

We will help the NHS, fight violent crime, invest in infrastructure and science and cut the cost of living.

This morning I spoke to Her Majesty The Queen to request an end to the current parliamentary session in the second sitting week in September, before commencing the second session of this Parliament with a Queen’s speech on Monday 14 October. A central feature of the legislative programme will be the Government’s number one legislative priority, if a new deal is forthcoming at EU Council, to introduce a Withdrawal Agreement Bill and at pace to secure its passage before 31 October.

I fully recognise that the debate on the Queen’s Speech will be an opportunity for Members of Parliament to express their view on this Government’s legislative agenda and its approach to, and the result of, the European Council on 17-18 October. It is right that you should have the chance to do so, in a clear and unambiguous manner.

I also believe it is vitally important that the key votes associated with the Queen’s Speech and any deal with the EU fall at a time when parliamentarians are best placed to judge the Government’s programme. Parliament will have the opportunity to debate the Govemment’s overall programme, and approach to Brexit, in the run up to EU Council, and then vote on this on 21 and 22 October, once we know the outcome of the Council. Should I succeed in agreeing a deal with the EU, Parliament will then have the opportunity to pass the Bill required for ratification of the deal ahead of 31 October.

Finally, I want to reiterate to colleagues that these weeks leading up to the European Council on 17/18 October are vitally important for the sake of my negotiations with the EU. Member States are watching what Parliament does with great interest and it is only by showing unity and resolve that we stand a chance of securing a new deal that can be passed by Parliament. In the meantime, the Government will take the responsible approach of continuing its preparations for leaving the EU, with or without a deal.

The Leader of the Commons will update the House in the normal fashion with regard to business for the final week. For now, I can confirm that on Monday 9 September both Houses will debate the motions on the first reports relating to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 (NIEFA). Following these debates we will begin preparation to end the Parliamentary session ahead of a Queen’s Speech.

The Business Managers in both Houses will shortly engage with their opposite numbers, and MPs more widely, on plans for passing a deal should one be forthcoming. Decisions will also need to be taken about carrying over some of the bills currently before the House, and we will look to work constructively with the Opposition on this front. If agreement cannot be reached we will look to reintroduce the bills in the next session, and details on this will be set out in the Queen’s Speech.

As always my door is open to all colleagues should you wish to discuss this or any other matter.

Yours sincerely,
The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP

(Photo credit: UK Government’s Northern Ireland Office. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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